Admit it: You love coming across cute animal videos and photos on your social media feed. Who doesn't? But watching these videos or stalking a friend's puppy-dedicated Instagram account is apparently more than just an amusing way to pass the time. According to a new study published in Psychological Science, looking at adorable animal photos—under the right circumstances—can actually improve your relationship. No, this is not *fake news*. (Need your daily dose RN? Here are a bunch of funny dog photos that will inspire you to get active.)
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Here's how they figured it out. Researchers were looking for a way to help young married couples improve the emotions they associate with their partners. Participating couples were assigned to either look at "positive" photos (like ones of adorable puppies and bunnies!) or "neutral" photos (not puppies and bunnies), interspersed with images of their spouse, once every three days for six weeks. Every two weeks, including the weeks before and after the experiment, the researchers assessed their automatic attitudes to their partners as well as their marital satisfaction. By the end of the research period, people who saw the positive images had improved feelings about their spouse.
Interestingly, the study was actually funded by the Department of Defense. They're looking for ways to help spouses of deployed soldiers cope with the stress of separation, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Deployment can put a lot of stress on a relationship, so finding ways to keep partners feeling good about each other and their relationship is pretty important. Plus, this means that maybe some of these findings could be applied to people in other difficult relationship situations, like long-distance relationships or partnerships with a lot of family drama.
So is the key to a better relationship simply looking at cute pictures of your S.O. with puppies? Maybe, says Jim McNulty, Ph.D., the lead author on the study. He thinks it's possible to implement a technique like this to help couples who are struggling with a difficult situation (including deployment) in real life, and he and his team are working on creating a protocol to help couples practice this kind of image association.
Really, the most fascinating part about this research is that it proves that you can change how you feel about your partner for the better by using positive associations. It's all about linking positive feelings and experiences with your partner, says McNulty. "Include your partner in fun activities, for example, and minimize the extent to which the partner is unnecessarily involved in activities that elicit a negative effect (aka negative emotions)," he recommends. When a negative situation or experience is unavoidable, try to interject something positive so your partner isn't only associated with those negative emotions, he says.
In other words, keep it sunshine, rainbows, and puppies as much as possible—which can be extra difficult in some circumstances, but worth the effort—and your relationship will reap the benefits. And if you need a little help getting there, here are some therapist-approved tricks for perpetual positivity.